Emily Danforth, author of the incredibly successful The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), is back with her first adult novel Plain Bad Heroines (2020). The book follows two main plot timelines: one takes place in the present-day and the other takes place long ago at an all-girls boarding school. In the present plot timeline, queer icon Harper Harper is starring in “The Haunting of Brookhants,” a cinematic adaptation of a book of the same name by Merritt Emmons, who becomes Harper’s lover while on set. In the plot from over a century ago, two girls die at the Brookhants School for Girls from which the film and book in the present are based upon.
Though complicated in plot, and with more than 600 pages, Plain Bad Heroines is a feat of a novel, blending themes of horror, queerness, and the pressures of Hollywood together. This book celebrates the lesbian characters; all of them are out and accepted within their settings and there are no instances where their sexuality is questioned. It’s quite rare to see this in any media, let alone a horror novel. With the queer sexuality of its characters set in stone, the focus of the story is on the actual plots. During the course of each storyline (separated by chapters), there is no set pattern to when each time period is being addressed, and the book just continues with whichever storyline is most necessary to tell the whole story at that moment.
Each set of characters is haunted by the presence of yellowjackets. Yellowjackets are what killed the young girls, Flo and Clara, who were lovers meeting in private at the time, in 1902. The yellowjackets were also seen by the queer schoolteachers during that time, and they appear again to Audrey Wells, the co-star of the Brookhants film, in the present day. When it is revealed by the present film’s director that he believes the school they are filming at is actually haunted and that he has been filming the cast during downtime on purpose to use for the film, he explains his artistic vision “deliberately curdled the beautiful into the terrifying” (284), which is what the book is doing as a whole when it comes to the women and their sexuality.
The plotline between Harper Harper and Merritt is a love story; it plays out in the style of a romantic comedy where they go on a date and slowly develop feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the rest of the novel has accepted everyone’s sexuality as a fact — no one is demonized for it. With these hauntings occurring, and increasingly so as the novel goes on, there is something deeply terrifying and dangerous that exists within the queer utopia of the novel. They may be making a movie about queer women with queer women in those roles, but this is out of the ordinary, and the inability for acceptance by the outside world is always looming over them. The characters are haunted by the outside judgment that they do not need to acknowledge, but it very much still exists in the world of the reader. Plain Bad Heroines is a fantasy world where homophobia is absent from their direct situation, but it lurks in the shadows in the form of the yellowjackets. The beautiful is hiding the terrifying.
While homophobia and the rejection of queerness are certainly underlying the entire novel, so are the traditional expectations of womanhood, particularly in the historic sequences of the novel. The book has a prominent focus on Mary MacLane (from the past) who is quoted as saying that she writes “plain, bad heroines.” MacLane was a real bisexual woman who wrote during the 1900s, “… [she had] written her portrayal with the purpose of escaping her dull domestic life as an unhappy daughter in Butte, Montana. She not only made no secret of this, she shouted it from the page. And what’s more, it had worked. She’d become famous and, at least for a time, financially independent…” (358). Back in the 1900s, young women would create their own clubs based on her writings, which is what Flo and Clara do in the novel. The pair create their Plain Bad Heroine Society but are killed by yellowjackets at one of their meetings. It’s safe to assume that when Danforth uses the symbol of the yellowjacket, we can associate it with the wasp, or WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), the exact group responsible for the oppression of women.
Brookhants’s owners, Libbie and girlfriend Alex, were also lovers, though Libbie married the owner of the school in a business deal to secure it and his wealth after his death. Harold Brookhants, you see, is also gay, so they formed an agreement in order for each to live out their lives with the social cover of their legal marriage. Because of the times and the rejection of their relationships, they must hide their love, only to be haunted by both the horrors of discrimination and the consistency of their desires. The couple wishes to be out to the public, not to hide underneath a marriage where Libbie is considered Harold’s property. Libbie wishes for a life where she is independent and not bonded to another person. Danforth writes “…Libbie’s feelings hadn’t changed: she did not want to be a wife…She wanted to belong only to herself…If there was a curse at Brookhants…it wasn’t from a book. It was her own resentment and perpetual discontentment” (465).
In addition to the characters who are punished and haunted by traditional gender roles, the Brookhants school notably lacks in the education of the domestic arts and the absence of required church services. The eventual owners of the school, Libbie and Alex, intentionally created an environment for their students to thrive as young women.
All of the symbols the women see in the different time periods of the book are merely physical representations of their genders’ oppression and sexuality that are the same in present day as they were in 1902. The characters experience visions of yellowjackets, black oxford apples, snowy angel trumpet flowers, and the ghosts of women’s past. They pop up when someone has died or is injured at the hands of patriarchal forces, all prematurely meeting their ends. The symbols have individual meanings, but what’s most significant is that they are fertile images of womanhood that bring about their demise, yet stay consistent over the century-long span of the story.
In secret, Libbie had attempted to find a husband to cover up Flo and Clara’s relationship before their tragic death, and when Alex finds out, this betrayal and force of a patriarch on their students throws her into illness. She soon dies after falling from a balcony in a daze of her illness. After her fall, Danforth writes “…I will not linger here describing all that came next, such as the wailing sob that accompanied Libbie’s harried slipping down the stairs, whereupon she flung her own body over that of her lover and stayed for so long that what they were to each other would never again be denied by anyone who saw” (500). The love of these women is only allowed after death, and then Libbie is no longer forced to live within the constraints that deny her identity to herself. Just as the visions of the various hauntings are real and not imagined by the queer women of Plain Bad Heroines, their love is just as real, and cannot be denied to them.
The refusal of their world to acknowledge the existence of queer love and the violence of the patriarchy is not a delusion; it is as real as every yellowjacket present on the campus of Brookhants.
Danforth, Emily M. Plain Bad Heroines. William Morrow. New York City, NY. 2020
Taylor Hunsberger is a pop culture writer who largely focuses on the representation of violence against women in film and television. She’s written for The Validation Project, Buzzfeed, and others. She also writes children’s theater and poetry. Visit her website taylorhunsberger.com.
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